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One Down, One To Go… — Beta Theta Pi dissolved in Frat Racism Scandal

The national board of Beta Theta Pi has announced that it will be suspending and indefinitely dissolving its Auburn chapter [link courtesy of the ever-awesome Max] in response to the fracas over racist hate imagery at the local chapter’s Halloween party. Delta Sigma Phi’s Auburn chapter remains under investigation for possible further action by their national board. In addition, individual members and both chapters may face disciplinary proceedings by the University for discriminatory harassment and violation of alcohol policies.

I should say this. I have been really sharply rhetorical so far in my stories and discussions of this most recent incident. I think the callous, racist cruelty and the horrifying nature of the images demands it. But I do want to say that I am not blind to the human element of this whole event, and it saddens me that many young men’s lives may be permanently knocked back, as a result of what they surely thought of not as racism or any kind of conscious malice, but just a lark, a stupid good time.

I don’t just say this because I know people in the Auburn fraternity system who are not the sloped-brow, amoral, reactionary meatheads that the Greeks’ history on Auburn’s campus might lead you to believe they would have to be–although this is definitely true; I have friends in the fraternity system who neither have nor want any part of that mindset. I also say it because I really regret that the meatheads that were directly involved will probably never understand just what they did wrong. They will understand that they did some dumb things that got them caught. And they may look back and grumble at the P.C. Thought Police Bastards who ruined their college career. But will they ever understand that there really was a very deep cut of wilful cruelty in what they did? They didn’t put on those costumes in order to be malicious racists (although I believe that there was certainly some overt malice involved). They put them on to have a roguish bit of fun, that old irreverant frat boy panache. Meaningless images of MTV gangstas and some documentary on the Klan they saw in school or on the History channel–trivial, ultimately, like the whole flux of images across our consciousness. Anything can be funny, right? If you don’t really go out and attack Black people, the images don’t mean anything, do they?

But words, images, costumes, historical scripts do mean something; they mean a hell of a lot. The images and rituals, the signs of white supremacist brutality in this country have a meaning, a meaning they are rooted to by centuries of blood and chains. But we live in an age in which the detached image and the spectacle is omnipresent, and yet the prevailing laid-back liberal ideology tells us that we have no reason to care, indeed, that if we do care it’s a sign of pretentiousness, humorlessness, a general need to lighten the hell up. And it’s slowly, surely killing our conscience, eating away at the possibility of being moral agents. Which has what to do with frat boys in Klan robes? I really fear that this soul-killing laid-back liberalism, the impetus behind the costumes in the first place, will also cripple the boys at Beta and Delta Sig from ever understanding what they did wrong, the cutting cruelty that they were willing to ignore in order to have a laugh. Just as much as their hate party outrages me against them, what it means also saddens me for them.

Nevertheless, I don’t hesitate to say that they must receive the harshest sanctions from the University, and I maintain that the fraternity system as a whole must be re-examined and challenged for the rather disgusting and reactionary culture that it helps maintain. I firmly believe that every time a frat house is bulldozed, an angel gets its wings.

For further reading:

  • GT 11/9/2001 on the broader context of racism in Auburn
  • GT 11/6/2001, the original report on the Halloween blackface incident

The Context of Racism at Auburn Fraternities

photo: from an Auburn fraternity Halloween Party

An Auburn fraternity brother dresses as a member of the Ku Klux Klan for Halloween

[The incident of AU fraternity members wearing Ku Klux Klan costumes for Halloween] could portray Auburn as a racist community. I do not believe Auburn is a racist community.

–Grant Davis, secretary to the Auburn University Board of Trustees

Funny that it keeps happening, then. Davis’s comments were made two years ago in 1999, when members of Pi Kappa Alpha dressed as Klansmen for Halloween and were mildly punished once it came to the eyes of the administration. The hate images put on display this Halloween 2001 by two all-white Auburn fraternities are shocking and horrifying in their own right, but they are not anything new to the Auburn community. Just in the past few years, the Auburn community has seen repeated incidents of racial hate and remains deeply engaged in institutional racism on many levels.

  • As previously mentioned, two years ago there was a parallel incident where Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity members dressed as Klansmen for Halloween.

  • Auburn’s historically white fraternities are, and have always been, almost completely racially segregated against Blacks.

  • Among Auburn’s registered student organizations is a campus chapter of The League of the South, a neo-Confederate group that is tracked as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

  • Numerous complaints of racial discrimination by Bourbon Street Bar managers in downtown Auburn, including managers inventing phoney dress codes on the spot and lying about city ordinances in order to exclude Black patrons from the bar.

  • Pervasive racism in hiring, promotion, and benefits in the Facilities Division (whose workers are overwhelmingly Black, managers overwhelmingly white) has prompted marches, demonstrations, and finally a federal civil rights lawsuit against the University. In response, Auburn dealt with the problem by… ignoring worker complaints and shifting building service workers to a night shift of 4:00pm to 12:30am, which will result in many of them having to quit in order to keep family commitments.

  • The Auburn University Board of Trustees consists of twelve white men, one white woman, and one Black man. The senior administration is almost exclusively white (one exception, of course, is the director of Multicultural Affairs). Auburn remains under a court desegregation order to increase hiring of Black administration and faculty and to increase Black student enrollment, but the much-vaunted 24% increase in Black enrollment still leaves Black students at Auburn as only 7.2% of the entire student population.

And there’s a lot more that I couldn’t put together for this hastily-compiled list. Of course, none of this was mentioned or responded to in the administration’s white-washing diversity rally media event. Instead there was everything I had hoped for in a serious, harsh response to the individuals who committed the most recent acts–and everything I had feared in distancing, disavowal, and refusal to deal with the larger environment that nutured the kind of moral obliviousness that would allow frat boys to think that their vicious re-enactments of hatred and genocide were all just a big stupid lark. Look, this is a serious problem in the Auburn community, and one that we’d better get damned serious about dealing with. If we fail, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, I fear that very shortly we will learn that racism is a sickness unto death.

Take action!

Please send polite and carefully-considered e-mails to Vice President for Student Affairs Wes Williams and Interim President William F. Walker urging them to take this hate incident seriously by ensuring that the individuals who committed it and the fraternities who hosted it are severely punished, urging them to permanently dissolve the local chapters of Beta Theta Pi and Delta Sigma Phi. Further, politely but firmly ask them to make sure that their response to this incident include a careful look at the broader racial environment at Auburn and that concrete new programs be implemented to address racism in the Auburn University community.

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